As the Devils skated off the PNC Arena ice after the Canes scored in overtime of game five of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the feeling that this core wasn’t done yet washed over me.
After not even being predicted to make the playoffs in most pre-season predictions, and sitting 10th-worst to win the Stanley Cup with +6600 odds, the Devils shocked the hockey world by climbing to second in the Metropolitan Division and entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a relative underdog.
Then came the upset in round one. The Devils clawed their way past their cross-river rivals in the New York Rangers, knocking the star-studded blueshirts out in seven games.
Sure, besides game three, the Devils fell flat at times against the Canes. But this team has an extremely bright future ahead of them, and it starts with possibly the most exciting player to watch in the NHL right now: Jack Hughes.
Hughes exploded this year: after a promising 56-point performance last season, the Orlando, Fla., native notched 99 points to become the Devils’ regular-season points scoring record, passing Patrik Elias. Locked up for the next eight years, the 21-year-old is going to anchor this team for a long-time to come.
The Devils’ offense – with Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer all posting career-high seasons in points – has the prowess to perform. And defensively, they’re there too. Anchored by Dougie Hamilton, he tied the franchise record for goals by a defenseman with 22, and broke 70 points to become the first defenseman in a Devils sweater to break that mark since Scott Stevens in 1993-94.
John Marino and Brendan Smith did a solid job on 5-on-5. Jonas Siegenthaler has blossomed ever since coming from Washington. But Luke Hughes is the most tantalizing to watch.
Hughes, who is the youngest brother of Jack and Quinn (on the Canucks), immediately joined the team after Michigan was bounced from the Frozen Four in April. Playing five games in the playoffs, per Todd Cordell, Hughes logged more than 25 minutes of ice, led Devils defensemen in 5v5 shot contributions (7), posted a 72 xGF% against an elite team, and ranked 1st among all skaters in Game Score (2.30).
The top prospects developing and waiting in line to play at the NHL level include the likes of Alexander Holtz (2020 7th OVR) and Šimon Nemec (2022 2nd OVR), who all have a good shot of playing soon.
The Devils do have some questions that need to be answered this offseason, and it comes in the form of contracts. With roughly $34 million in cap space, the Devils have the third-most money to shop around this summer behind Anaheim and Chicago, and its front office needs to determine who they want to re-sign come July 1, as there are some significant contributors that need new contracts.
Jesper Bratt, Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula, Michael Mcleod, and Damon Severson are all set to become UFA/RFAs. So too does Timo Meier, who they acquired at the trade deadline.
Tom Fitzgerald and Co. will have their hands full this summer in making sure the Devils are contenders once again. But one thing is for certain: With the right moves, New Jersey will be a force in the Metropolitan Division for the foreseeable future.